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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

July 15, 2009

HBS MBA Questions for Fall 2010 Admission

This post is focused on overall strategy for HBS MBA Questions for Fall 2010 Admission. All the posts in this series: Overall Strategy, Accomplishments, Mistake, Option 1, Option 2, Option 3, Option 4, and Option 5.  My post on HBS interviews can be found here.


  1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
  2. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.
  3. Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.
  4. Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board.
  5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

Here I will provide some overall strategic advice regarding applying to HBS.

Please keep in mind that additional strategy and tactics will be covered in the seven other posts in this series. I suggest reading in the entire series of posts, even for the optional topics that you do not intend to write on.

The two required questions are the same and so are three (Options 1, 2, and 5) out of the five questions that applicants will get to choose from. HBS dropped one option question and added two new options (3 and 4).

Why I don't think it is generally a good idea to write the HBS essays first:
Given the limited length of the set, 1800 words maximum, applicants must think very seriously about only including their best content. Curiously enough Stanford GSB also has limited essay word count to 1800. Unless you are only applying to HBS and Stanford, I would generally suggest you write the essays for another school first. There is a learning curve in essay writing and you want your essays for HBS to be very strong. Given that you do have significant choice in the HBS set, having a portfolio of essays from other schools to utilize can be quite helpful. I know my suggestion will be harder for those focused on first round. Additionally, given the limited word count for the HBS essays, you are in many cases likely to have more space to write on some similar topics for another school. I think it is generally easier to go from a longer to shorter text and hence, doing HBS short word count essays after one or more school's 500 or more word count essays is likely to be more efficient.

First Round versus Second Round versus Third Round
Well, I would not apply in the third round. That said, I have had a client admitted in the third round in recent years. My client who was admitted for Fall 2009 was admitted in the second round. In general, those who are truly ready for first round would be well served to do so. Given that this is likely to be a record-breaking year for applications, it would stand to reason that it would be better to apply in the first round. Third round this year is for those who can't get it done sooner, have a very positive "freak-factor" going for them, and enjoy taking extreme risks.

Increased level of interview offers for Japanese candidates
Regarding Japanese applicants, I can say that admissions interviewed many more applicants for Fall 2009 than they had for Fall 2008. This appears to have been part of conscious effort to look at a wider range of applicants at the interview stage. Unless informed otherwise, I think it is safe to assume that policy will hold this year as well. As is always the case, intensive interview practice will be critical.

The structure of the application is such that one does not have to write a "Why MBA? What are you Goals? Why HBS?" essay (Essay Options 4 and 5 are clearly designed for that purpose, but they are just options). That said, you really do want to fully account for the above questions in your own head, at least, because it is an important strategic consideration. Furthermore, you can assume that if you have an interview you will be asked about your educational and professional objectives (see my analysis of HBS interviews).

I think it is possible to actually use any of the questions, with the possible exception of the "Mistake" question, to explain why you are applying to HBS and what your career vision is. In my analysis of each question, I have indicated how I think the connection could be made. Clearly each applicant will have to figure out what works best for them.

I think this is an obvious point, but I will make it anyway: I suggest you take a look at my posts on school selection as they will help you to analyze why HBS is right or wrong for you. I think actually it is not right for everybody, so look at HBS closely to see if it right for you. Your age is certainly a consideration. In addition to what it is stated in this post, I suggest you review the entire series of posts even for questions you are not planning to write on because I have provided links to various things about HBS.


While Harvard Business School is most known for its use of the case method (80%), other top programs use it typically 30%-50% of the time with the remainder consisting of lecture, experiential learning, simulations, and other methods. By the way, if you want to know what HBS students read in addition to case studies, see http://www.computersexy.com/blog/2008/02/03/hbs/what-do-hbs-students-read/.

If you are thinking about applying to HBS, you should learn about the case method/view. One of the clearest explanations for the case method is, not surprisingly, the HBS website. Every MBA applicant could benefit from watching the case study video which will provide you with a clear 13 minute and 25 second image of what case study is about.

Want to read some case studies?

One great resource for cases studies is caseplace.org, where you can read cases written by and for top business schools. Many were published by Harvard Business School through Harvard Working Knowledge, Harvard Business Review, and Harvard Business School Publishing. Sources for other cases include Stanford Social Innovation Review, Knowledge @ Wharton, and MIT Sloan Management Review.

Sponsored by the Aspen Institute, "CasePlace.org is a practical and dynamic resource for up-to-date case studies, syllabi and innovative MBA teaching materials on business and sustainability— from corporate governance to sustainable development." Given the sources and purpose of the site, this is a wonderful opportunity to read cases on a diverse range of subjects. If caseplace.org is not enough for you then you can also purchase case studies directly from HBS and other schools.

Please keep in mind that the objective is to get enough background to make good decisions about your applications, so don't feel obligated to spend so much time reading cases. Just spend enough time to know what the case method is and how it will impact your application decisions and admissions strategy.

I think it is easy to say that the conservative choice for those with work experience would be to answer Option 2 or Option 3, which are both leadership questions, and also answer Option 4 or Option 5, which can both easily cover goals/MBA/HBS. For some applicants this will be the right decision. The important thing is to select the topics that will best represent you. Focus first on what you really want to say about yourself and then decide which questions will be best to answer. As I will discuss, Option 4 has the advantage of being really useful for a number purposes. Also, for some applicants, Option 1 is really very useful, so don't assume that I am suggesting that it is less worthy of consideration than the other four possibilities. Your objective is to construct the most effective presentation of yourself as possible in order to become part of the Class of 2012. One thing to avoid is an over-marketed set of essays. Instead focus on presenting yourself at your best. See my last post of 2007 on the limits of a marketing based strategy.

Please read my analysis of Option 2 in which I will discuss leadership at HBS in detail. Even if you don't plan to write on this topic, it contains an important part of my analysis of HBS overall and also applies directly to Option 3.

  • Read my other seven posts in this series. Even if you are not planning to write on a specific question, you might very well find something that will help you with the questions you are writing on.
  • Learn as much as you can about HBS. If possible, go visit the campus. Visiting HBS, like visiting any business school, is one of the best ways to learn about it.
  • Attend admissions outreach events as these will give you an opportunity to hear from admissions directly and possibly interact with alumni.
  • If you find that you need expert consulting on HBS or other MBA applications, consider contacting me. For more about my services, see http://adammarkus.com/.
Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.

-Adam Markus
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